Sunday, December 19, 2010

". . . old recollections, dreams of bloodshed, of classes in conflict, books and pamphlets studied in secret meetings. . ."

"I won't believe a word of what you say. You're just mad because Mervat turned you down. And you don't believe any of this rubbish about socialism and equality. It's simply power. If you have power you have everything. And meanwhile there's no harm in preaching socialism and equality to others. Have you actually seen any of that gang walking around in poverty lately, like our lord Omar?"

I continue with my end-of-the-year Middle Eastern theme that began with Wolves of the Crescent Moon and will conclude with Naguib Mahfouz's Palace Walk next week for Richard's Cairo Trilogy read-along. 1967's Miramar, a short novel, is one of the Nobel Laureate's later works that deals with the social turmoil of post-Revolution Egypt. It was translated from Arabic in 1978 by Fatma Moussa Mahmoud.

Mariana is an aged society woman running a pension (boarding house) called Miramar in Alexandria. Still possessing an air of faded elegance, she often reminisces about the good life and her days as the queen of the salons. The first boarder, her old friend Amer Wagdi, is likewise preoccupied with his bygone time as a journalist in the heady final hours of Egypt's old order, when he mixed with powerful political figures and radical idealists. The third elderly boarder is Tolba Bey Marzuq, formerly a big landowner and prominent government official, now a bitter old man whose property was confiscated by the new regime. For all their past differences, Mariana, Amer, and Tolba are united by their advanced years and detachment from the uncertainty of the present.

Mariana's sole employee is a maid named Zora Salama, a headstrong young woman who fled her native village after her family tried to marry her off to a man decades her senior. She is the object of attention for the three young borders: Hosny Allam, a bored, self-indulgent country squire; Mansour Bahy, a melancholy radio announcer; and Sarhan al-Beheiry, a politically active accountant whose actions betray his true convictions. Despite Hosny's unwanted advances, Zora is having a secret affair with Sarhan, who one day turns up dead after being expelled from Miramar for fighting with a drunken Hosny. Meanwhile, Mansour is on a downward spiral due to a combination of love and politics.

Miramar is essentially a soap opera, as the publisher's copy promises. Yet I hate to describe it as such because it's really not trashy at all. Told from four separate perspectives (Hosny, Mansour, Sarhan, and Amer), it is instead a slice of life in a breezy city by the Mediterranean in the aftermath of great social upheaval. While the old folks seek company and security at the end of their lives, the young people (all under thirty) rush from here to there with seemingly no purpose. Amer can only recall the conviction of his youth while his successor, Mansour, falls just as hard and quickly as Sarhan the ostensible socialist. Hosny, alas, is the one left standing and he is by far the least sympathetic. A free-spending, speed-driving aristocrat with a penchant for prostitutes, Hosny is apparently the only one able to adapt to the new climate, thanks to his interest in purchasing a business from an owner nervous about the government's property seizures. The only characters with any real principles are Amer and Zora. Elderly Amer, however, is largely irrelevant, while Zora is strictly pragmatic (she wants to learn to read and find better work) and also powerless due to her gender, illiteracy, and lack of family ties.

All in all, Miramar is not optimistic when it comes to the success of Egypt's 1952 revolution. The same forces - class, money, male privilege - remain intact while the very people purported to benefit - namely, Zora - have seen little improvement. But given his careless lifestyle, it is doubtful if Hosny's success will last long or come to anything worthwhile. Perhaps Miramar is an expression of concern for a whole generation, despite Zora's hopeful ending.

Miramar is never gloomy, however. It is a fast, roundabout little book with a vivid sense of time and place and a believable cast. Frantic lives play out against a pleasant backdrop of white, beige, and sky blue with frequent visions of the sea and the tired grandeur of an old heiress's mansion. Founded in 331 BCE by Alexander the Great, Alexandria too is but a shade of its cosmopolitan past. Whatever happens, at least we'll always have Alexandria, the mute testament to history's ongoing march.

Click here for Richard's review.


Emily said...

Interesting to read this as I too make my way through Palace Walk, which seems to share the "essentially a soap opera yet not trashy" feeling you describe. The old folks' plot line you outline here quite appeals to me; I wonder if there will be something similar in the second and/or third volumes of the Cairo trilogy. I have to say that I'm getting slightly fed up with arrogant young Egyptian males...but maybe that just means Mahfouz is doing his job. Certainly his depiction of female subjugation is more critical than approving.

Amy said...

I enjoyed Palace Walk and am looking forward to reading more by this author at some point. This sounds like a great book, not too trashy at all from your review!

E. L. Fay said...

Emily: Having gotten through 3/4 of Palace Walk, I have to say . . . YOU'RE RIGHT! I've had it up to here with arrogant Egyptian men. But I will say this: at least Hosny's no religious hypocrite. Definitely agree about his depictions of female subjugation. He doesn't protest outright but he is clearly not a fan.

Amy: Are you doing Richard's read-along too? Can't wait to hear what you think!

Anonymous said...

Miramar isn't just about the different classes' reaction to the revolution - it's about their reaction to Zohra after the revolution. Zohra is supposed to be symbolic of Egypt, which this review glances upon but does not really explore. Their treatment of her is the most important thing... it's not even remotely close to a soap opera.

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